crime

Inspector General

mag_coverFor this profile of the man who runs field operations for U.S. Customs across a huge swath of the West, I spent a few days talking with Customs agents and hanging out at the Port of Oakland, SFO, and a mail-inspection warehouse. It was totally fascinating.

The Port of Oakland is not a human-sized place.

Stacks of shipping containers stretch into the wide blue sky, monoliths of gleaming metal overhung by skyscraping cranes that methodically load crates on and off of cargo ships. Far below, semi-cabs and SUVs trundle to and fro, mice in the shadow of giants.

In one corner of the terminal, a Customs and Border Protection officer inhabits a specialized utility truck, peering into a few dozen of the 500,000 containers that pass through the California port each year.

Articles
California
crime
San Francisco

Comments Off

Permalink

The Thug

thugartRemember the movie Tsotsi, about a South African criminal? My story, “The Thug,” profiles a real-life tsotsi. It appears this month in the literary magazine Carte Blanche.

Most nights the crew headed north to the suburbs. Nigerian middlemen brought them orders from car buyers all across southern Africa–Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe. Maybe somebody wanted a C-class Benz, maybe a 4×4. Often, the Nigerians already had a car picked out. All Bongani had to do was take it: “We’d wait for the owner. We just ask for the keys, nothing else. If he is fighting, then we grab him and tie him with wires or ropes and put him in the house.”

They’d drive their treasure out to the empty spaces of eastern Johannesburg, half-industrial suburbs near the airport where there was plenty of privacy. The Nigerians would be there with the money.

There were four guys in Bongani’s crew, and they stole six or seven cars a week. It was lucrative: he made a few hundred dollars a week when business was good. The thieves couldn’t have done it, of course, without cooperation from the police–both black cops in the townships and white cops elsewhere. “You must have cops who know you,” he said. “You must pay the cops.”

Breaking off his story, he moved to his stoep. He swept his arms out, taking in the whole of Soweto beyond his courtyard. “I could tell you that maybe 30 cars have been stolen this morning.”

Read it here.

Africa
Articles
crime
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

Death to the Penalty

death1This month’s San Francisco magazine runs my piece on a legal challenge that could bring California’s death penalty law crashing down. The decision is expected this fall, but no matter which way the judge goes we can expect appeals stretching to the horizon. Ultimately, though, it’s hard not to see this challenge as yet another step on the road to abolition.

One way or the other, members of the defense community are cautiously optimistic that the death penalty’s days are numbered. “It’s like pushing a boulder uphill,” Zimring says. “But things are changing.”

Articles
California
crime
Legal
Politics
San Francisco

Comments (0)

Permalink

Kliptown blues

3976813773_955a6d976a_o(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I took this photo while hanging out in a so-called “informal settlement” on the edge of Kliptown. People called the area Chicken Farm, supposedly because it had been part of a white-owned farm decades ago, before apartheid’s enforced racial sorting.

My guide that day was a friend of a friend, a “former thug” (as he was described to me) with a deep scar down the left side of his face. He grew up nearby, and remembered buying bread and sweets at the now-derelict shops. He got into the gangster game in his early teens, he told me, to provide for his family. By his last year in high school, he and his crew were stealing six or seven cars a week, mostly from whites in the northern suburbs, and delivering them to Nigerian middlemen who smuggled them out of the country. Later, his gang graduated to commercial truck hijackings and to home invasions. He insisted that he always urged nonviolence–at least at first. “‘Where’s our money?’” he’d ask the homeowner. “‘When you open the safe, it’s cool. We’ll leave you, and we’ll be gone. But it’s bad when you are not talking.’”

The thug did a few stints in prison, then got out of the game following a premonition that he was going to die violently. Nowadays he rises at 4 a.m. to get to his job as a landscaper in the northern suburbs, which pays less in a month than he used to earn in a week. To make ends meet, he still “consults” with younger car thieves on weekends.

Africa
crime
Photography
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

Pimville, Soweto

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o2(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

As an outsider, it’s easy to get caught up in the fear of crime that permeates life in South Africa–especially around Johannesburg, which just a few years ago had a violent crime rate four times that of Colombia during its civil war. In the late 1990s, a gorilla called Max became one of Jo’burg’s hottest celebrities. One day a burglar named Isaac Mofokeng, on the run from the cops, took refuge in the gorilla cage at the Johannesburg Zoo. Resenting this intrusion, Max attacked Mofokeng, and Mofokeng shot him, which only made Max angrier. Mofokeng barely survived the mauling. The bullets barely hurt “Mad Max,” as he came to be called.

In the run-up to last year’s World Cup, papers around the world predicted that visitors to South Africa would be beaten and robbed in record numbers, that no one would return alive. It didn’t happen, mainly because while the crime is real, it’s only part of the story.

Africa
crime
Photography
South Africa
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

On the Block

tap1I’ve got a piece in the new issue of the American Prospect, on some innovative anti-crime efforts in Oakland that actually work. In the most messed-up parts of the city, police action alone can’t do the job; nor can well-intentioned community groups. The key, as it turns out, is to get them working together. Easier said than done–community policing schemes have come and gone (and come again) in Oakland. But this new push, which is harder-edged than community policing but has many of the same aims, looks awfully promising.

It’s been raining and the San Francisco Giants are on TV, so the streets are quiet. We’re cruising through East Oakland, one of the most violent parts of a violent city. A knot of drug dealers loiters in front of a housing project, and crackheads sit in folding chairs on the sidewalk. Two teenagers in hoodies saunter by; another weaves back and forth on a small bike. Anthony DelToro gestures toward them: “When you see youngsters like that, all in black, the majority of the damn time they got guns.” He pauses. “This is Oakland — everybody got a gun.”

Read the whole thing here.

Articles
crime
Legal
Uncategorized

Comments Off

Permalink